In 1977, Bill Veeck traveled to Cuba, hoping to draft local players for the White Sox farm system. Trying to paint the Yankees as “Batistas” and himself as “a poor man, a fighter,” he undermined his pitch to the Cuban commissioner of baseball by spouting a garbled and erroneous tutorial on the balk rule.
That about sums up Veeck, a businessman, visionary and baseball fan whose enthusiasm was sometimes his undoing.
Veeck, one of the most colorful characters baseball has ever produced, did not lead a life unexamined thanks largely to three autobiographical masterpieces co-written with Ed Lynn. “Veeck—As In Wreck” is the best and best known of those three, but the whole story had never been told until now, with the arrival of Paul Dickson’s tremendously entertaining and definitive biography, “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick” (Walker & Company, $28, pictured).
Why Veeck? Next time you go to the ballpark—any ballpark in any city—pay attention to the little details. You’ll see Veeck’s fingerprints.
I’m including minor league parks, by the way. Hell, I’m including independent and affiliated minors, college stadiums, American Legion fields, unkempt tavern-league softball diamonds and Little League parks. Veeck’s there, on the field and in the stands. Even when there aren’t any stands.
Everyone knows that Bill Veeck brought a midget to bat for the St. Louis Browns. But his other accomplishments and influences are profound and legion: Integration? Veeck was at the forefront. Names on uniforms? Veeck. Music between innings? Veeck. Scoreboards that entertain? Veeck. Goofy mascots, giveaways, even complicated tax breaks that allow small minor league clubs to thrive? Veeck, Veeck, Veeck.
Imagine if the man had been named commissioner of baseball (as was suggested in 1968?) The mind reels.
Dickson’s bio fills in the gaps in the autobiographies, and takes readers through Veeck’s tumultuous final years (the last bio was written in 1972 and the man died in 1986, leaving years of wonderful stories left unspun.)
Thanks to the mascots and midget, Veeck is too often perceived as merely a creature of fun. But he was a tireless promoter, negotiator and businessman. Stationed with the Marines in Guadalcanal during World War II, Veeck tried to make baseball deals via telegram, until his leg was crushed in combat, eventually resulting in an amputation. Hungry to integrate the majors, in 1942 he tried to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and stock them with the all-stars of the Negro Leagues.
While Dickson’s research is thorough, he doesn’t smother his readers with it. Veeck was full of bizarre traits and admirable qualities, including tremendous courage. He’s everything an author wants in a protagonist, and Dickson’s book is a joy.
You’ll read how in every city of every team he owned (Milwaukee, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, a racetrack in Boston, and then Chicago again), Veeck ingratiated himself in the best way possible—with profound respect for the fans. You’ll also read how damned difficult it was for him to acquire those teams, and how the rest of the baseball establishment tried to crush him. In spite of this, Veeck brought Cleveland its last World Series, helped revive baseball in Milwaukee, made the White Sox fun and, to my surprise, helped keep the Patriots of the NFL in New England. Most of all, he made the people of those cities happy, so very, very happy.
You might also ask yourself whether his innovations have spun a bit out of control. It’s only a small step from Comiskey’s exploding scoreboard to the Marlins’ loony flying fish.
“Bill Veeck” gives us the small details that reveal the man. Look at him helping a young journalist, the recently departed John Kuenster, After they’d spent a long day promoting baseball, Veeck hauled the writer to one of the dining rooms at Comiskey Park. There, he pulled raw steaks from the fridge and tossed them at Kuenster. “You’ve got a big family, take three of these.” And then we gape in horror as he pulls out another hunk of meat and devours it raw in the car on the way home.
“Bill Veeck” is that rare book that entertains just as it teaches us to be kind, to be generous and to fight. And if you want to live as Veeck did, you have to fight. As Chicago Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet once said, “[Veeck] was proof positive that one man with courage constitutes a majority.” Which leaves me wondering: Who in baseball has that courage today?
(This video segment is from “Veeck: A Man for Any Season,” 1985, produced by Jamie Ceaser and Tom Weinberg, originally broadcast on WTTW Chicago.)
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PETER SCHILLING JR. is the author of the novel “The End of Baseball.”
STORY ART: Main image made in-house with photo courtesy Time Out Chicago and illustration by Dmitry Samarov.